EPA Grants Oklahoma Regulatory Control Over Tribal Lands, Removing Native Sovereignty

The state of Oklahoma now has the right to regulate environmental issues on nearly all tribal lands in the state after a decision from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to TYT, this measure removes any concept of sovereignty from the 38 tribes in Oklahoma. It also clears the way for environmental abuses like dumping hazardous chemicals, while leaving the tribes no legal recourse, a former high-level official of the EPA said.

“This also includes hazardous chemicals that are byproducts of petroleum procurement and refining,” TYT reports, noting that Oklahoma had the fourth largest petroleum industry in the US in 2019.

Most of eastern Oklahoma belongs to Native American tribes.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Most of eastern Oklahoma belongs to Native American tribes.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler approved the request in a letter sent to Gov. J. Kevin Stitt (R-OK) on October 1. State made the initial request to control environmental regulations on tribal lands on July 22. Among the governor’s demands:

  • Regulatory control over hazardous waste dumping on tribal lands, including formaldehyde, mercury, lead, asbestos, toxic air pollutants, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), pesticide chemicals, glyphosate, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
  • Regulatory control over toxic fracking through the Underground Injection Control.
  • Protections for industrial-sized livestock operations that produce massive amounts of waste every year.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler approved Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt's request to take over control of environmental regulation throughout the state.
Source: flickr/The White House
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler approved Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt’s request to take over control of environmental regulation throughout the state.

Wheeler and the EPA granted each of Stitt’s demands. The EPA administrator added that the permission was influenced by the outcome of McGirt v. Oklahoma, a United States Supreme Court that maintains a majority of eastern Oklahoma is tribal lands. However, federal legislation can ignore and negate Supreme Court decisions, which Wheeler’s approval of the governor’s demands does.

“EPA’s letter grants Oklahoma’s request to administer the State’s EPA-approved environmental regulatory programs in certain areas of Indian country. EPA’s letter resolves ambiguity and essentially preserves the regulatory status quo in Oklahoma,” EPA spokesman James Hewitt wrote in a statement.

“Additionally, if any tribe wants to apply for regulatory oversight of these environmental programs, then they can apply through EPA’s Treatment as a State process,” he added.

Native Americans from these five nations were forced to move to Oklahoma Territory by the U.S. government.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Native Americans from these five nations were forced to move to Oklahoma Territory by the U.S. government.

This insidious power was granted in 2005, hidden in a last-minute rider to an 836-page bill focused on authorizing federal funds for federally aided roads and highways. According to The New Republic, “the perfect place for Inhofe to hide some equally sterile lines protecting gas and oil interests against the peskiness of tribal sovereignty and land rights, to be employed if the worst came to pass and tribes in his state were able to reclaim their lands…”

Oklahoma's state bird is the scissortail flycatcher, which could be driven to extinction if its main sources of food disappear.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Oklahoma’s state bird is the scissortail flycatcher, which could be driven to extinction if its main sources of food disappear.

The addition to the 2005 transportation bill sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) appeared like this:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, if the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (referred to in this section as the ‘‘Administrator’’) determines that a regulatory program submitted by the State of Oklahoma for approval by the Administrator under a law administered by the Administrator meets applicable requirements of the law, and the Administrator approves the State to administer the State program under the law with respect to areas in the State that are not Indian country, on request of the State, the Administrator shall approve the State to administer the State program in the areas of the State that are in Indian country, without any further demonstration of authority by the State.

Oklahoma's state insect is the honeybee, which currently faces threats from unregulated pesticide use.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Oklahoma’s state insect is the honeybee, which currently faces threats from unregulated pesticide use.

These 113 words granted the Environmental Protection Agency power to give the state of Oklahoma regulatory control over all environmental issues in the state, regardless of tribal sovereignty. All the governor had to do was ask, and 15 years later, he has.

This action comes as a slap in the face to Native Americans living in the state. The following statement was sent to TYT by Casey Camp-Horinek, Environmental Ambassador & Elder & Hereditary Drumkeeper Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma:

“After over 500 years of oppression, lies, genocide, ecocide, and broken treaties, we should have expected the EPA ruling in favor of racist Governor Stitt of Oklahoma, yet it still stings. Under the Trump administration, destroying all environmental protection has been ramped up to give the fossil fuel industry life support as it takes its last dying breath. Who suffers the results? Everyone and everything! Who benefits? Trump and his cronies, climate change deniers like Governor Stitt, Senators Inhofe and Langford, who are financially supported by big oil and gas. I am convinced that we must fight back against this underhanded ruling. In the courts, on the frontlines and in the international courts, LIFE itself is at stake.”

Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.

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